Waiting with the Little Clowns
The little pines stood together, behind and next to each other, growing together, looking over one another's branches, as it were, from the other side of the road that ran behind the old house. . . . Little fantastic clownlike pine trees with spiked branches extending, always green, each one alone and yet a part of the others, always standing there waiting—for what?
I called them the little clowns, for that's what they seemed to become as I looked at them from the window of the kitchen in the Old House. Snow at times bent down the small boughs, or a sudden change of weather, mild and wet, left them glistening, the top branches alert, each individual, each alone, waiting. . . .
Gene may have seemed grim and determined when we left, decided, as it were, to embark on a new life altogether; but chaos surrounded us soon after we arrived in New York.
There was a day or so of seeing people that he knew; talks with Jig Cook and then a party at the Provincetown Theatre on Macdougal Street. This started off well enough—everyone was gay and happy and pleased that Gene was back; there was excitement and talk about the new season and about Where the Cross Is Made, which was to be on the first bill, but the end of that evening was a shock to me. . . . We had gone to a Village restaurant to eat after leaving the party at the Provincetown Players. Teddy Ballantine and his wife and some others were with us, and I was sitting near one end of the long table, happy and enjoying myself at being back with people we knew and liked.
It had seemed to be in order that there should be a celebration for Gene—this home-coming party as a welcome back to the Village; and I had taken care to look as well as possible for Gene's sake as well as my own; a little lipstick to go with my tan; my hair (longer now) brushed loosely around my neck. Gene admired me when we left our small hotel room. "You look beautiful!" he said. "I'm proud of you!"
At the Provincetown Players on Macdougal Street everyone was wonderful to me, Christine greeted me with a big hug and exclamations of how well I looked and Gene (the real center of attention) seemed pleased that I should share it with him. Gene did not intend to take even one drink that night. We had not seen his parents, which we were to do the next day; and he had also made a list of people he had to see, copied it in his neat handwriting and put it beside the telephone—people he would have to be sober to see and talk with.
But he changed his mind, not because he needed it, for he was at ease, and really happy, but because he wanted to join with the others, who were drinking quite moderately, and because he felt he wouldn't drink much either. He was careful to follow Harold's advice, and he didn't seem to mind the teasing when they saw him drinking whisky diluted with a lot of water, instead of the old straight shots. I, too, thought that everything was all right, and when we left, Gene was smiling and perfectly sober. A group of us decided to stop at a small Italian restaurant nearby. It was nearly empty at that hour, with long wooden tables set along the wall. Perhaps I was too happy—who knows? Teddy Ballantine was talking to me with the fervent, absorbed interest that always transformed him from a slight, rather bored young actor to a glowing intense person whenever he talked of painters and painting, a subject in which he was deeply absorbed. Gene, further down the table, was half listening to our conversation, and I noticed an ironic look he sent in my direction. Gene didn't care or think too much about painting. He felt all this was a certain affectation on Teddy's part—a "chi-chi" attitude which gave Teddy a chance to be slightly superior. I know this wasn't true about Teddy—at times afterward we even argued about it. Teddy Ballantine had as fine an understanding of modern painting as anyone I have ever known. . . .
A little time passed and also a bottle. I saw Gene pouring a large straight drink for himself. I waited a few minutes, then got up and walked down to where he was sitting and squeezed in next to him, whispering in his ear that maybe we ought to go back to the hotel. He got to his feet, gave me a push that sent me backward, leaned toward me, swinging as hard as possible with the back of his hand, and hit me across the face. Then he laughed, his mouth distorted with an ironic grin....
I can remember my horrible astonishment and despair at this performance, along with a crazy dazed feeling that it just couldn't be true—it couldn't have happened; and then I saw that everyone was taking it, as it were, with a grain of salt, as a Dionysian gesture. . . . They were watching Gene, not looking at me; and he stood there, ignoring me too, now quoting dramatically something from Ibsen: about "vine leaves in his hair." (Men, on occasions like this, seem to stick together, is all I can say!) But Stella Ballantine rose to her feet and in her deep acquired British voice told him what she thought of him—though perhaps with a vein of pity. Teddy was silent. Gene looked at Stella (whom he called the Duchess behind her back) without seeming to see her, although his next remark was directed at her. "Get out of here—all of you!" Harold Magee and his wife got up quickly and left. I put my hand to my face and thought, This isn't happening . . . he'll be all right in a minute. But it was happening. Gene gave me another baleful look, heartlessly implying, I suppose, that I should get out of there too, and the sooner the better; and Stella, her warm proud face very intense, put her arm under mine.
"Let's you and I and Teddy go to our place for a while. Teddy has to go anyway. He has a rehearsal in the morning!"
But Teddy, with that detached charm which reminded one that in his days as a London playboy he had seen so much that nothing could ever disturb him again, elected to remain—for a while at least.
I got to my feet, Stella grasping me firmly as if she did not intend to let me go. I did not want to leave—it couldn't end like this.
But he was not looking at me or hearing me now; in some way, almost physical, he had gone over, completely, to something else. I saw him as if in a haze, surrounded by those others as male and Dionysian as himself, one of whom, with an admiring look at Gene, produced another bottle.
Stella walked outside with me, talking calmly, never stopping her talk. "It means nothing, my dear, nothing! I've had the same thing happen to me—although Teddy, I admit, has so far never tried it! Genius is like that, my dear! Genius must have its outlet! Come to our apartment (it was just around the corner on Grove Street) and see some of Teddy's recent paintings." I told her I should go back—wait and go with Gene to the hotel, but she insisted that would only make matters worse.
"We will go back later," she said soothingly. "It is much better if you keep out of sight for a while. He didn't like you talking to Teddy—I could see that. My dear it was the same with my aunt Emma. I devoted myself to her for years, and yet she resented any little bit of attention that I received. . . ."
We went up to her apartment, and Stella with pride displayed Teddy's water colors, and then showed me some photographs of her aunt, Emma Goldman; but I hardly saw anything, wondering what was happening to Gene. . . . Stella noticed this and decided to accompany me back to the restaurant. When we got there everyone had left. The Italian waiter shrugged when Stella asked him where they had gone. I waited while she telephoned the Hell Hole (the Golden Swan) and was insanely relieved when I heard her talking to Teddy, but Gene wasn't there! "My dear, where did he go? Haven't you any idea?" She paused. "Remember, there's a rehearsal tomorrow!"
Stella convinced me that Gene must have gone back to the hotel, expecting to find me there: we would take a taxi, she'd drop me off and go and pick up Teddy. "He's in Redemption, you know. I'll call you after I get Teddy tucked in bed."
Stella did call me (half an hour later) and I told her Gene was not there. I sat alone in the bedroom, looking at the brief case, carefully put at the end of the bureau the list of people he had to see that day, carefully placed near the telephone. . . . I heard the elevator come up, and footsteps coming along the hall. Once, twice—three times . . . but not his footsteps. The sound of the elevator ceased at last. I got up from the chair and pulled up the window blind: dawn was coming faintly along the tops of the buildings. Then I heard footsteps again. They were slow, unsure, and my heart began beating rapidly. It was someone wandering along the hall, past our door. Then the footsteps came back, stopped outside—silence. I hesitated, and slowly opened the door just a crack. It was Gene. He stood there, forlorn and without his hat.
"I walked up"—he hesitated—"I couldn't find our room. . . ."
I saw a sick man standing in front of me. His face sagged and his mouth was set in the old familiar tight line, pressed together to keep something in. This gave a look of bitterness to his whole face, as if he knew too well the taste of gall on the sponge. . . .
He came in, without appearing to see me, and sat down on the edge of the bed. He put his hands up, and his long spatulate fingers pressed against the skin of his forehead; bent forward, his elbows testing on his knees, he looked alone and unhappy. I went over and stood beside him, and put my hand on his head. He reached out and put his arm around me, holding me tightly and quivering.
Two things that I was to do often afterward in my life with Gene I did for the first time in that hotel, whose name I have forgotten. First (when we came in from the Fall River Line) the signing of the register—a ritual which was ever afterward observed. We went inside the hotel; Gene and our luggage remained near the door, as much out of sight as possible; I went to the desk and registered. Second—lying for him. He was sick, I was sick, or some story or other was invented to put off something he had promised to do, or someone he said he would see. . . .
The next morning it was obviously impossible for him to go with me up to see his parents. There was a washbasin in the corner of the room, and he stood braced over it for a long time, the water running from the tap. Then he came back, exhausted, and lay on the bed. He opened his eyes long enough to see if the brief case was safely there. "See if you can get a pint from the bellboy."
I called up the Prince George about eleven, although I hated doing this, as I had never met his mother. Gene was sick—he had eaten some oysters on the boat, and they had poisoned his stomach. But the doctor thought he'd be all right by this evening—probably he'd be a little shaky. We'd come up after dinner, about eight o'clock. Was that all right?
His mother's voice was filled with concern over the telephone, tired and rather faint. "Will he be all right?" I wondered how much she knew, and when she asked me if I'd eaten any of the oysters I said I never ate oysters. I felt all right—perhaps just a little tired after the trip. She said how much they were looking forward to meeting me, and to be sure to take care of him and come up tonight, or his father would be very disappointed.
Gene was listening, lying on the bed.
"I think having the doctor up was a little too much, Gene, after all; I could have just said the oysters upset you. Now I've got to remember never to eat oysters when we're with them—and I love them!"
"I know Mama! She always said oysters were poisonous. Come and sit over here. . . ." He was feeling better already after two drinks. "Do you think they'll send some soup up from the restaurant?"
I sat beside him, and he put his head over on my lap. I stroked his forehead, and felt the throbbing of his eyeballs under my fingers. . . .
"The dream—it's back," he whispered. "I almost shattered it . . . you're here. . . . You and I always. Us always!"
We stood in the lobby of the Prince George, waiting for an elevator up to room 819. I was nervous somehow. I had been looking forward to seeing Gene's parents—but this was not the way we had wanted it to be. Gene stood beside me, tense and still pale: his healthy tan had a sallow cast, and his face was shaded and somber under the velour hat. He gave a sudden, half childish, half sickly smile.
"Buck up! We're here, aren't we?"
He held my hand surreptitiously going up in the elevator. We walked together down the thickly carpeted hall and stood before a closed door. Gene did not knock immediately. He stood there, waited; drew in a deep breath, looked at me . . . then his knuckles made a nervous tattoo on the dark, polished wood.
The door opened immediately—I think his mother must have been standing there behind it.
"Well! Eugene!" She stood back a second, looked at him and then embraced him and I saw them for a moment, his arms around her, her head close to his chest. Then she was speaking to me:
"Agnes!" and she kissed me, gently and affectionately. "Let me look at you—Eugene's wife!"
I smiled back at her. She's lovely, I thought gratefully. At once there was a bond between us (was it the bond of Eugene?) and I think we were both aware of it; that recognition of love and understanding. Then his father was there: he had risen from his chair and come to greet us; he seemed a little concerned but very pleased.
"Jim, this is Agnes!"
"How do you do, my dear?" He shook my hand, then bent and kissed me on the forehead. "Eugene, you've done well! Take off your hat, my boy—where are your manners? What's this about the oysters?"
Gene was smiling and in a teasingly ironic mood all of a sudden. He put his hat on a chair and slipped out of his topcoat. "Never mind about the oysters, Papa. Been poisoned from eating bluefish lately?"
"Never mind about bluefish! I still refuse to eat them. What about a little snifter?" he added, looking at his wife. She looked at me. I don't know what my expression was, but she said:
"Just as you like, James—if he wants one. Let me take your coat, dear," she added as I slipped out of it. "Are you sure it's warm enough for this weather? You should have something heavier!"
Gene and his father had moved past the long table in the middle of the room to a comfortable sofa and Gene sat down, his father standing. "You're sure you've had your dinner, Eugene? We can have something sent up."
We had eaten—nothing very much, it's true. "Maybe later," I said. "A sandwich and coffee, something like that." The older man nodded and turned to go into the bathroom. Ella O'Neill sat down near her son on the sofa.
"Come and sit down here, dear," she said to me. "Eugene, you look well. You look very brown—you've put on weight. And isn't it wonderful about your play! Your father is so pleased—he may not show it, but he is so pleased!"
There was a chandelier in the middle of the ceiling, with glass crystals which gave a soft but brilliant light. It was a spacious room, comfortable and homelike, with large easy chairs, a soft carpet, tall curtained windows opening on the street eight floors below. There were flowers on the long table; little silver dishes; a table with magazines and a sewing basket, a bookcase. On the wall hung some framed pictures and over another small table a group of photographs. The door into the bedroom was partly open, showing a shaded light beside the bed. Near the bathroom door was a stand on which stood a coffee percolator and some cups and saucers; and over the stand was a picture of a lovely nun, her face bent down, gazing at a crucifix in her hands.
From my end of the sofa I watched Gene and his mother as they talked. Every moment or so she would look at me and then back to him. She is quite a beautiful person, I thought. Although at first she had given me the impression of being quite conventional, there was a serenity and goodness about her that revealed itself as one listened and talked to her. My first impression had perhaps been caused by her manner of speech, which was slightly precise; or by her carefully waved white hair; the small matched strand of pearls that she wore around her neck; or the quiet elegance of her rather small neat figure. Her dress was black, of finely fluted silk, with long close-fitting sleeves and with delicate handmade lace at the wrists and neck; her shoes were exquisite, very fine lizard with some sort of an intricate knot at the instep. When one was close to her, one noticed a faint and elegant flower perfume—the perfume of a lady. Once when she said something to Gene she leaned over and put her hand on mine and I noticed this elusive odor. This charm or beauty of hers, which became more perceptible as one watched her, was partly because of her eyes, which were a deep dark muted brown, and her skin, which was amazingly smooth and soft and pale; and also because of the exquisite suitability of her clothes; her simple and very elegant taste—and, added to this, the calmness of her expression.
James O'Neill came back from the bathroom, carrying a tray with three drinks tinkling with ice and ornamented with lemon peel. He put them on the table before us, groaning a bit as he sat down himself.
"It's a little soon after dinner for me, but I'll have one with you to wish you luck, Eugene. I made one for you," he said, turning to me, "but if you don't want it, don't take it and no doubt your husband will have it himself—to save you from it, eh, Eugene?"
They began talking about the play then— Beyond the Horizon. The old man had some advice to give, some comments to make, and while this was going on, Gene's mother talked to me. She asked me where we were planning to live this winter and advised me not to let Gene take me again to the Garden Hotel. "It's all right for Jamie," she said, "but not a nice place for you." She suggested that perhaps we could take an apartment later; she had always wanted an apartment but nothing would do for James but the hotel. "We've been living here now for years except in the summer when we go to New London," she said. "But you wouldn't like it here—you should have your own place!"
Gene and his father were still talking, so she took me into the bedroom to see a coat that she had just bought. It was a beautiful full-length Persian lamb. "James grumbled—men always do," she said. "But I got it at last!" To my surprise she slipped it on me, instead of on herself. "You look well in black. You should make Eugene buy you one when his play goes on. I have a mink scarf—" she began, and then hesitated and said no more.
She sat down on the bed, and we talked about Eugene and his health, and also how I must take care of myself, and put on a little weight: She didn't see why Eugene had to stay up in Provincetown in order to write—it must be lonely for me there. Then she asked me about my little girl. "I'd love to see her," she said. "You know I always wanted a little girl so much—and then I had three boys." I looked surprised. "One died when he was a year old—my own fault," she added sadly. "He might not have died if I hadn't left him; we had a good nurse, a very good nurse, and James wanted me to go with him on tour—he can't seem to manage without me. I think Eugene is going to be the same about you."
I asked her after a moment, if Jamie would be over that evening; we had not seen him since our arrival in New York.
"Ah, Jamie—yes, he said he'd drop in later. He looked so well when he came back from Provincetown. He likes you too. He enjoyed it very much in Provincetown."
We talked a while longer and then went back into the other room. Gene was rather restless, and after a moment or so his father asked if he'd like another drink. "But drink it down! I want to get the bottle out of the way before Jamie gets here!" he added rather bitterly. He did not join Gene this time; and Gene's mother apparently did not drink anything at all.
I began to sense a restlessness on the part of both Gene's parents. They kept glancing toward the door. At last there was a knock—and Jamie opened the door which had been left unlatched. He stood there with that Punch smile of his, aware that all eyes were on him. He was neat, compact, red-faced: the tan of Provincetown had been replaced by the tan of alcohol. . . .
"What ho! The prodigal returns. . . ."
I saw Mrs. O'Neill's face—it was kind, severe and sad. Her husband's face was sstern and also sad. For it was only too obvious, as he moved slowly into the room and toward us, that Jamie was very potted. His careful speech, his slow movements, his fixed, ironic smile . . . I wonder what Jamie felt, with four of us sitting there, what his real feelings were—for he must have had some, even though alcoholic. One never really knew.
Gene's face lighted with a delightful grin. "What ho!" The old man did nothing else than pick up a newspaper from the table near his elbow and begin reading. Mrs. O'Neill fluttered nervously, her hands moving over her lap.
"Have you eaten, Jamie?" she asked reprovingly. "I told you to come here for dinner!"
"I have dined with the gods!" Jamie said. He carefully located a chair and sat down. "And I am in perfect shape, Mama, to join this joyous reunion with my brother and the wild Irish rose. You have eaten the fatted calf, I presume? Mama, have you presented your daughter-in-law with your mink scarf yet?"
Mr. O'Neill raised his eyes at once from the paper and cast a look of stern inquiry at his wife, whose pale skin, beneath this scrutiny, flushed slightly. I was embarrassed but Gene looked pleased.
"You are intoxicated, Jamie," his mother said, "and you promised me that tonight—"
James O'Neill turned on her angrily.
"Haven't I told you that his promises amount to nothing?"
He slammed the paper down on the sofa.
"I hear that Jamie was a very good boy all summer." Mrs. O'Neill said. Her hand fluttered again; she turned to me. "Agnes—he says you're a good cook, my dear. I never learned to cook. . . ."
"Mama makes the best scrambled eggs in the world. She makes them every morning for her esteemed husband," Jamie said with malice. "My fond papa eats them with relish after his morning tot of whisky!"
"If you limited yourself to a drink before breakfast, as I do, you'd be doing well," the old man exclaimed. "It is medicinal—the doctor ordered it. Keep your dirty Irish tongue out of my business!"
"Now, now, James!" Mrs. O'Neill turned toward Jamie. "How often have I begged you to come and I'd cook eggs for you here? You could have the whisky first too, if you wanted it."
"Not from me!" The old man growled. "Not a drop of my liquor!"
The brothers looked at each other and grinned. Then
Gene said something in his low quiet voice, about the six-day bike
races, while the old man went back to his paper, grim and quiet.
Mrs. O'Neill was watching Jamie with silent anxiety. When she
ordered some sandwiches and coffee sent up she ordered soup for
Jamie; but he refused to touch it, and got an angry glare from his
father. . . . We left sometime after this, and Gene's mother walked
to the elevator with us, urging Jamie, who left with us, to come in
the next morning and have breakfast with them. . . .
© Copyright 1999-2010 eOneill.com